The Other Mad Men

If the show's creators are really sticklers for detail, there's reason to expect some darker faces at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce before long. In the real world, Don Draper would have been working side-by-side with a brother.

Posted:
 
at20the20table20with20420mad20men

The start of a new season of Mad Men has had its loyal followers wondering what's next for the talented but conflicted alpha male Don Draper as he leads a group of disaffected executives in the launch of a new ad agency on Madison Avenue.

In its past seasons, the Emmy-nominated series deftly revealed personal and professional dramas against a backdrop of the social and political changes in Kennedy-era America. Now, with season four opening after Kennedy's death, the question is, will Mad Men tweak its focus and more fully show life in America during the period of the struggle for civil rights, the most tumultuous domestic issue of that era?

It's been accepted more or less as a truism that black people didn't work on Madison Avenue in the 1960s. But facts are stubborn things. There were black people in advertising even then, some (a few) in high places. Contrary to the popular assumption, blacks in that era met with success and challenges on Madison Avenue, like everywhere else.

In January 2009, The New York Times reported on a news conference in Manhattan convened by activist lawyer Cyrus Mehri and the NAACP, a gathering to announce the release of a 100-page report on race and employment practices in the advertising industry. The report was part of the Madison Avenue Project, spearheaded by Mehri and the NAACP to force increases in the small numbers of minorities in advertising.

At the news conference, Sanford Moore, a former employee of the prestigious agency BBDO, bitterly decried what he called "the cotton curtain of discrimination" practiced by "the men in the gray flannel sheets," adding that it is time for the last corporate bastion of Jim Crow to fall.

Moore's denunciation of his former industry had long historical precedent. The advertising industry has been the subject of criticism for the lack of diversity in its hiring practices since the 1960s. In the real-life pages of Advertising Age, the industry bible, the disparities between ads targeting black and white audiences were attracting industry attention as far back as 1966; other industry observers weighed in earlier than that.

On that basis, you wonder if the Mad Men scriptwriters will entertain the introduction of an another minority in the storyline -- someone besides the Draper family's African-American maid or Don Draper's new Latina housekeeper. Someone within the workplace universe of Mad Men who can provide a professional perspective far different from that of the show's 99.9 percent-white characters. Far from just being a PC move, including black people in the Mad Men universe makes sense in the context of history.

Chambers examines the rise of what he calls the "Brown Hucksters," the group of African-American marketing and advertising specialists in the 1950s who helped deep-pocketed advertisers realize that black consumers spent money, too.

In his book, Chambers recounts the career of Georg Olden, an African-American trailblazer in advertising. After the United States entered World War II, Olden, the Alabama-born son of a Baptist preacher, left college and got a job as an artist for the Office of Strategic Services, a precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency. He later went to work at CBS and left there in 1960, at the age of 40, to pursue a new career in advertising. He signed on as the television art group director with BBDO.

In 1963, much in demand, Olden accepted an offer to move to the influential agency McCann Erickson to become vice president and senior art director. That same year, he became the first African-American designer of a postage stamp, a stylized depiction of a broken chain that marked the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Olden went on to win seven Clios (the advertising industry's equivalent of the Oscars) for his work throughout the 1960s. (Icing on the cake: Olden himself designed the actual Clio statuette, inspired by a Brancusi sculpture.)

Throughout that decade, federal and state governments did what they could to make Olden less of an advertising anomaly.